Found March 16, 2013 on Fox Sports:
Butler-xavier
Brad Stevens, the Butler University coach who is one of the brightest young minds in college hoops, was sitting at a podium at the Barclays Center on Saturday afternoon when he said some things that might be considered heresy to the bluebloods. He was talking about the St. Louis University team that had just beaten his team handily in the Atlantic 10 Tournament, and his words might include the most prophetic thing said yet about this year's NCAA tournament. "I've said all year to the people that have listened, and to some that don't, how good they are," Stevens said after the Bulldogs' 67-56 loss. "They are a legitimate contender for the whole thing." Wait, coach -- a mid-major school, winning it all? Over Duke and Indiana and Louisville? Really, coach? "They've got eight guys that are all strong, big, physical, tough, smart, skilled basketball players, and you don't need anything else if you're all together, and they've got it all," Stevens continued. "They're the strongest team we've played against." This was no small statement. First, consider two teams Butler has beaten this year: Indiana, which they knocked off the No. 1 perch in December, and Gonzaga, the current No. 1 team in the nation and possible top overall seed in the NCAA tournament. Then consider the source. If there's anyone who knows what a national title-contending mid-major squad looks like, it's Stevens, who improbably took two Butler teams in a row to the national title game in 2010 and 2011, and who has won more games in his first six years as head coach than anyone in Division I history. And these weren't words from a coach who had just lost and wanted to pay an overstated homage to the winning team. Few coaches are as meticulous as Stevens, so when he says something, he's thought it through. What was left unsaid was this: In a season as wacky as this one -- filled with upsets and buzzer-beaters and an epic five-overtime game and struggling bluebloods and Gonzaga as No. 1 -- this March has as good a chance as any to be dominated by these mid-major schools. Which is ironic. Because it would come at a time when plenty of these teams, plus two traditionally mid-major conferences, have outgrown that label. Just look around. Sure, the West Coast Conference is still a mid-major conference (ranked 10th in conference RPI, likely sending only two teams to the NCAA tournament), but does anyone think Gonzaga is still a mid-major program? (No, because mid-major programs don't attract best-in-the-nation talent such as the Zags' frontcourt of Elias Harris and Kelly Olynyk.) St. Louis has morphed over the past month from a feel-good story of a team overcoming a famed coach's death to everyone's favorite dark-horse pick for the Final Four. The Mountain West Conference, always left out of lists of the big six conferences, has the best conference RPI in basketball. The Atlantic 10 is projected to send five teams to the NCAA tournament, according to ESPN bracketologist Joe Lunardi -- more than the SEC and the same as the ACC, Big 12 and Pac-12. Of those A-10 teams, two have Final Fours in their recent past. A third, St. Louis, with one of the nation's most efficient defenses, is one of Stevens' favorites in March. Creighton is the nation's sixth-most efficient offense, according to KenPom.com, while Missouri Valley rival Wichita State has the tough, physical makeup that often equals success in March. The possibility of any of these teams going deep into the tournament would come with the inevitable backhanded compliment that'll come their way. If any of these so-called mid-major teams make the Final Four -- and especially if more than one makes it -- the storylines in Atlanta will be all about the little engine that could. Which implies that they'll all little, and that though their engines can, their engines really shouldn't. So is it time we just stop referring to many of these school as mid-majors, since the only reason we do is based on the past and not the present? Why should Gonzaga or Butler be considered a mid-major school in basketball while doormats like Penn State and Auburn are considered high-majors because they're in a power conference? "I haven't given it an ounce of thought," St. Louis coach Jim Crews said. "I've never really worried about what people called things, all my life. I'm serious. I'm not trying to be sarcastic. Some guy in Idaho is telling me what -- I mean, who cares? I don't care. It doesn't make any difference. That's not why you play the game. You play the game because you love the game. You have a passion for the game and play it no matter who we play. If that's in front of no one or that's in front of 20,000, great." Much has been made of this being the year of the upset. The only predictability has been exactly how unpredictable it's been. Could we predict this as the perfect year for mid-major success in March? "It's an amazing, fascinating game, and you're always trying to figure it out," Crews said. "Guess what? You never will. That's the only thing I can come up with. You'll never figure it out." Follow Reid Forgrave on Twitter @ReidForgrave or email him at ReidForgrave@gmail.com.
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